The Bureaucracy of Prisons

As I advance through my 25th consecutive year in federal prison, I realize that my perspective of the prison bureaucracy differs from many of the people who are new to this environment. Whereas others expect "corrections," experience convinces me that the objectives of America's criminal justice system, in its entirety, are the same as the objectives of any other bureaucracy: it strives to perpetuate itself. Rather than pursuing justice, the prison system defines success with convictions and finality. New prisoners delude themselves when they expect justice and fairness. Despite having built successful careers as sophisticated businessmen, many of the men in America's federal prison camps strike me as being incredibly naive when it came to navigating their way through the convoluted corridors of so-called justice.

Several decades ago, the well-known German philosopher Max Weber wrote extensively about organizational systems and structures. Mr. Weber's writings on the nature of bureaucracy may shed light on what Americans should expect from this criminal justice system. Whereas efficiencies and the pursuit of profit frequently motivate citizens from the business class, Mr. Weber's writings explain how the pursuit of power motivates those who pledge allegiance to bureaucracy.

Bureaucrats strive for the perceived prestige that accompanies their ranks and positions. As such, dual objectives -- perpetuating the system and increasing budgets -- motivate those beholden to government agencies, including law enforcement, the courts, prosecutors, and the prison system. These government functionaries don't have any interest in efficiencies or the virtues of justice. To think otherwise would be equivalent to believing that tobacco companies truly want smoking cessation programs to succeed.

This growth-at-any-cost strategy has resulted in a criminal justice system with an insatiable appetite. I came to prison in 1987, when fewer than 600,000 people were locked inside. Today, America's prison system alone requires $74 billion each year to confine more than 2.3 million people. The real costs of confinement, however, are much higher. Taxpayers allocate hundreds of billions more to cover the costs of investigating, prosecuting, and adjudicating the growing class of American "criminals."

Business leaders like Bill Gates, a founder of Microsoft and an icon of American business ingenuity, aspire to grow and expand, but their purpose differs from government bureaucrats. Bill Gates wanted to see increased efficiencies; he famously aspired to put a computer on every desk. He didn't rely on smoke and mirrors to accomplish his vision, but instead had a clearly defined plan to reach his objective. By creating systems that he could consistently monitor and refine, success followed.

Similarly, those at the top of the criminal justice system have lofty goals. They don't want to create efficiencies, however. They want bigger bureaucracies, with bigger budgets, more employees, and more overtime. Those in the prison system, for example, don't want to prepare offenders for law-abiding, contributing lives upon release. As one of my unit managers once told me, "We don't care anything about your life after you walk out of prison. All we care about is preserving the security of the institution."

Indeed, thoughts about preparing prisoners for success upon release are contrary to the objective of building a larger prison system. Whereas Bill Gates wanted to put a computer on every desk, prison functionaries aspire to perpetuate a system that locks away at least one member of every family. And they do their part to facilitate such an outcome. Prison administrators control the narrative with propaganda about the importance of corrections, community ties, and preparations for reentry. Then they implement policies and procedures that extinguish hope, that isolate, and that lead to perpetuating cycles of failure on a massive scale by ensuring that prisoners are less likely to succeed upon release than when they began serving their terms.

America's criminal justice system did not grow to become the largest in the world by accident. It grew by design. Government lobbyists, legislators, judges, prosecutors, prison staff, and those who benefit from the growth of big government all play their individual parts to ensure the system continues to thrive.

During the decades I've served, I have learned that to expect justice from this system is absurd. Justice would provide mechanisms that would encourage individuals to work toward reconciling with society and earning graduating increases in liberty. Yet our criminal justice system shuns such principles. Instead, our criminal justice system measures justice by convictions and by the number of calendar pages that turn while an individual is confined. Without more people coming into the system and serving increasingly longer lengths of time, the system would starve. To keep the cycle growing, legislators have increased the number of actions that could lead to federal prosecutions.

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 10,000 different acts could lead to a federal prison term. Law enforcement officers pressure citizens to save themselves by snitching on their fellow "criminals." With an indifference to criminal intent, prosecutors pursue every tactic that still leads to convictions. Judges robotically inflicted draconian sentences without concern for the totality of an individual's character or prospects for redemption.

Prison staff keep the cycle of failure going by implementing policies and procedures that discourage family and community ties. And when high recidivism rates don't satisfy the prison system's need for growth, more punitive policies (limitations on access to telephone, visiting, and mail) are put in place that make it more likely for prisoners to lose contact -- perhaps a strategy to instigate generational incarceration.

Nine thousand days of "corrections" have endowed me with a unique perspective on America's federal prison system. Although I've encountered some within it who wanted to help me on an individual basis, the system itself preserves the mechanisms it has in place to perpetuate itself, just as Max Weber theorized about every other bureaucracy.